Brett Tomlinson/PAW
From the PAW Archives

The stone above, positioned outside the entrance to Firestone Library, is easy to overlook, but its story is an interesting one. During the Battle of Britain in 1940 and year that followed, the Houses of Parliament were bombed by German planes on multiple occasions, most notably in May 1941, when part of the building was set on fire. This portcullis, an emblem of the House of Commons, was charred in one such attack and later removed from the walls.

In 1944, the Earl of Halifax, British Ambassador to the United States, presented the stone as a gift to Princeton, which had been hosting a series of three-day weekend courses for men and women in the British military. The courses, taught by Princeton faculty, included lectures on government, economics, history, and the arts, according to a January 1944 story in the Princeton Herald.

As the war raged on in Europe and Asia, the Earl of Halifax told an audience in Nassau Hall that Nazism existed in direct opposition to the representative governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, and that he was sure that “no bomb gave greater pleasure to the Nazis than that which destroyed the House of Commons.” The Allies, he added, were fighting for the values of justice, liberty, and self-government. “For these we are resisting dictatorships and are giving the best of our sons, British and American,” he said. “We shall vindicate their validity once more in our hour of victory.” Below, read PAW’s full story, from the Jan. 19, 1945, issue.

From left, the Earl of Halifax, British Ambassador to the United States, and Admiral Sir James Somerville present a stone from the bombed Houses of Parliament to University President Harold Dodds *1914 on Dec. 16, 1944.
Martin D’Arcy/PAW, Jan. 19, 1945

A Gift From the United Kingdom

The Earl of Halifax and Admiral Somerville present a symbol of British-American understanding

(From the Jan. 19, 1945, issue of PAW)

On behalf of the United Kingdom and its armed forces, the Earl of Halifax, British ambassador to the United States, and Admiral Sir James Somerville, R.N., senior British officer in this country, presented Princeton University, on December 16, a stone from the bombed Houses of Parliament, bearing on its surface a smoke-darkened relief of a portcullis, emblem of the House of Commons.

The gift was a token of appreciation of the University’s contributions to British-American understanding through its week-end courses for the personnel of the armed services of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Engraved on a plate attached to the wooden base on which the stone is mounted is this inscription: “This stone from the Houses of Parliament was presented to Princeton University by His Britannic Majesty’s Government in grateful recognition of the generous hospitality shown by the University to the British Service Missions in the U.S.A.”

The presentation of this relic from the rubble of the House of Commons took place appropriately, as the Earl of Halifax remarked, in Nassau Hall where this country’s original national parliament, Continental Congress, once convened.

The occasion of the ceremony was the tenth British week-end course. Twenty-three “alumni” who came to Princeton for the ceremony attended the exercises in company with the twenty-eight members of the current class. Every one of the nine previous classes and every branch ofservice were represented in the alumni group — and almost every rank and both sexes.

The convocation took place at noon in the Faculty Room before an audience which just filled it. The uniformed service men and women of the British Commonwealth occupied the benches on the eastern side of the Faculty Room while the gowned and hooded members of the University board of trustees and faculty sat on the western side.

The Earl of Halifax, wearing an orange and black hood, symbolic of the honorary degree the University conferred upon him in 1942, was the first speaker. His theme was the representative system of government. Representative government, he said, was the arch-enemy of the Nazi philosophy. It was a champion of those human liberties, the stifling of which was the first act of every dictatorship. While the Reichstag was “but a pale and distorted image” of real representative government it was “quite appropriate for Goering to burn it down” as the Nazis rose to power. By the same token, he said, he was sure that “no bomb gave greater pleasure to the Nazis than that which destroyed the House of Commons.”

The British ambassador noted the similarity between the national life of the United Kingdom and the United States. Each sprang from and depended upon constitutional expression of free thought. Basic to the two systems, are trial by jury and habeas corpus, “the final assurance of the liberty of the individual.” Although doing so in different ways, each had sought to protect the legislature from executive interference. Under both systems, he said, “Congress and Parliament are the places where, through chosen representatives, every citizen is entitled to have a voice.”

After giving historical illustrations of Parliament’s success in remaining independent of the Crown, Lord Halifax observed, “Thus Parliament has been for us a stage where successive acts in the great drama of freedom have been played before the world.”

It was the place, he recalled, where Chatham defended the revolting American colonists, where his son, the younger Pitt, spoke against the slave trade and where, more recently, Churchill has made speeches that “will live as long as the English language is spoken.” These landmarks, he said, can be matched in the United States.

“Today,” he concluded, “Congress and Parliament are leagued together in the spirit of those great works and in defense of those great things, among which are the right of the common man to justice, liberty and self-government. For these we are resisting dictatorships and are giving the best of our sons, British and American. We shall vindicate their validity once more in our hour of victory.

“Such understanding as may be created here will be establishing the partnership of two nations through which alone can we hope to discharge, for the world’s healing and health, those responsibilities which are the inalienable accompaniment of power.”

Admiral Sommerville, participating in the exercises as the representative of the armed forces, recalled that 264 service men and women of the British Commonwealth had’ already attended the Princeton courses and that there was’ still a waiting list.

Those who had attended ranged in rank, he noted, from rear-admiral to able seaman — a rather wide range, although it is perfectly possible for an able seaman to become an admiral. For the present — and he stressed the word “present” — it is not possible for a Wren to become an admiral. But she can look forward to the possibility of becoming an admiral’s wife — “and of running the admiral.”

Prefacing his comment with the explanation that he had been in the Royal Navy since the age of 14 and thus had never had an opportunity for formal education, he observed that this void in his experience was now being filled by the Princeton course.

Pointing out that success in life is not to be measured by the number of stripes you have on your arm or the balance you have in the bank but by what you extract from life and, even more important, what you put back into life, he suggested that education speeded this process. “Understanding,” he said, “is based on knowledge.”

In conclusion, Admiral Somerville, who recently came to Washington, via London, from his previous post as Commander of the Eastern Fleet, touched on a recent tendency he had noted in both the United States and Great Britain to be critical of each other.

He recalled the close bonds which had existed in the days of adversity following Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the “Prince of Wales” and the “Repulse.” He suggested that the current criticism was really over minor matters and that it had been greatly exaggerated. “Criticism has greater news and gossip value than appreciation,” he said. “With success one tends to draw apart — that is human nature.”

Observing that on the battle front Great Britain and America are fighting the enemy and not themselves, he expressed the hope that behind the battle front the close ties which had bound the two countries together in their days of adversity would continue to bind them in the days of success.

In accepting Britain’s gift, President Dodds emphasized that “the lesson we Americans must learn, if freedom is to survive, is the lesson that the heritage of America and the heritage of the British Commonwealth of Nations are one.”

Differences between the two governments were not only inevitable, he said, but were not to be regarded “as wholly undesirable.” “While we must attain unity in ‘one world,’ we must not deplore variation which is the savor of personality and the salt of democracy.

“It is in the self interest of both countries, and a matter of consequence to the peace and security of the world, that we understand sympathetically these differences and prove big enough to reconcile them through wisdom and mutual forbearance. This has been one of the objects of our week­end courses, one that is in keeping with the traditional spirit of this university and of the Houses of Parliament, a valued symbol of which Princeton now gladly possesses.”

The Earl and Countess of Halifax came to Princeton on Friday. At their request, after arriving by train at Trenton, President Dodds took them to historic spots in that territory, including the Barracks and Washington’s Crossing. They, President and Mrs. Dodds, and Admiral Sonier received the guests at the regular Friday night dinner the British course which was held at the Princeton Inn. Present at the dinner beside the students in the cu course and their professors were the twenty-three alumni of earlier courses and the son of Lord and Lady Haifax, Lt. Richard Frederick Wood, now invalided as a result wounds sustained in Africa, who sat in on the tenth course as a personal guest of President Dodds.